Greetings from Palm Beach

By Loretta Grantham | Boston Magazine |

Sandra Krakoff shuffles crisp ecru cards like a blackjack dealer as she glides between banquet tables in a couture cloud of Fiandaca chiffon. But there are no kings or queens in this deck, at least not in the traditional sense. These are place cards, and this is another type of royalty: rich Bostonians with homes in Palm Beach. In a moment, they'll be descending upon the Breakers hotel with their large diamonds and even larger checkbooks in tow.

The Breakers' cavernous Venetian Ballroom features 51 round tables topped with floral centerpieces as tall as fifth graders and enough glassware to open a crystal shop. It's set up for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's annual charity ball, of which Sandra Krakoff — her smile beaming, her auburn hair perfectly coifed — is cochairman, a social brass ring bestowed on those with clout and connections. (Krakoff's husband, Robert, is chairman and CEO of Boston-based Advanstar, a $350 million business information firm.)

The charity soiree is held here each February for one simple reason: This is where Boston's upper crust goes for the winter. Philanthropy is like a blood sport in this elite enclave. The Dana-Farber gala is one of a relentless roster on the island, which during “the season” is home to some of the planet's deepest pockets. That means about 40 million philanthropic dollars vacuumed up for charities at luncheons, cocktail parties, and opulent balls for which even a glass-slippered Cinderella couldn't finagle an invitation.

Tonight at the Breakers, guests include Boston bigwigs Robert and Myra Kraft (New England Patriots, the Kraft Group), Abe and Lin Gosman (formerly of Meditrust real estate and healthcare), Carl and Ruth Shapiro (Kay Windsor knitwear), Paul and Phyllis Fireman (Reebok), Alfred and Gilda Slifka (Global fuel), Stephen and Roberta Weiner (The Mall at Chestnut Hill and 61 other New England shopping centers), and others of that ilk. The guests sitting on the west end of the room, with tuxedoed waiters bumping the backs of their chairs, paid the mere $600 ticket price. But the ones near the dance floor likely plunked down several thousand or more. Of course, at this price, the sweet potato dauphinois is exceptionally fluffy. And the list of Massachusetts luminaries goes on.

Fredric and Helen Bossman (B&B meat distributors) cochaired the ball with the Krakoffs. America's Cup poster boy Bill Koch (Oxbow energy and technology) loaned his art-packed manse for the kickoff party, underwritten by Giorgio Armani, who showcased models amid stage lights worthy of a Hollywood back lot.

In Palm Beach, there are parties to announce parties, and parties to celebrate having had parties. And the toughest task, as any hostess will tell you, is the seating chart, whether you've invited 50 to brunch or 500 to the Breakers.

Says former ball chairman Michele Kessler, who with her husband, Howard (Kessler Financial Services), winters in a $30 million estate formerly owned by the founder of Colonial Penn life insurance: “People say, 'Give me a good seat, give me a good table.' And I'll say, 'You gave me $500, and he gave me $100,000. Where do you think I should put you?' If you get as crass as that, they get it.”

But as the crowd begins to file in, it's clear to longtime Palm Beachers that something in this town has changed. Not all the blood is blue these days. Far from it. And an influx of new money (as in not third generation and not WASP) is forcing many Old Guard stalwarts an hour north to Jupiter Island. Meanwhile, a manic meritocracy of self-made Bostonian strivers is replacing the Palm Beach aristocracy of yesteryear. On this seemingly relaxed island, conflict has arisen between new and old money, Jews and anti-Semites, and the many charities stumping for the millions of dollars at stake.

The birth of the Palm Beach pilgrimage itself has roots in Boston. After Henry Flagler, who founded Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller in 1870, built a railroad to the region and opened the Breakers in 1901, rich pals from Boston and elsewhere came south to frolic on the shore and gamble at Bradley's casino. A new 300-room hotel was added by investors including Boston financier A. M. (Sonny) Sonnabend, who founded Sonesta International Hotels. By then, many Bostonians were hooked, but not only by the average temperature of 74 degrees. They began flocking to this resort mecca to reinforce their social status or reinvent themselves among their peers.

Wealthy Bostonians have been pouring in ever since, along with a few other notables who moved into prime spots on the aptly named Worth Avenue downtown. Armani, Chanel, Gucci, Chopard, Tiffany, Cartier — the gang's all here. And the charity circuit is the mainstay of the elite social calendar.

A month after last winter's Dana-Farber ball, at a luncheon thrown by Bostonians Michele and Howard Kessler for donors who gave at least five grand to support the gala, estate jewels from Christie's bound for auction in New York are holding center stage. Impeccably clad socialites and their husbands have been given quiz sheets on which to guess the value of seven items. Together they coo over a $40,000 diamond ring and a $26,000 sapphire Van Cleef & Arpels brooch, while scribbling numbers in a sort of rich people's The Price Is Right.

Michele Kessler, with the help of Boston event czar Bryan Rafanelli, sidesteps the who-sits-where problem by attaching ribbons corresponding to table numbers to the stems of wine glasses, which are handed out at random by waiters in bow ties. Lunch will be served poolside — the indoor pool, that is — amid roses and floral linens.

The Kesslers are major contributors to the Democratic Party who've hosted Bill Clinton both in Palm Beach and on Cape Cod, so there's polite amusement when Michele emerges sporting a gold Rene Boivin elephant pendant that's part of the Christie's collection. (The elephant is the Republican mascot, you'll remember.)

“They asked me to wear it,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “Howard says I'd better remember to take it off.”

Among the other prominent Bostonian Palm Beachers present is Ruth Shapiro, who with her husband, Carl, gave $3.5 million to Brigham and Women's Hospital last February. The Shapiros' past gifts include $25 million to Brandeis University two years ago — the largest single donation in Brandeis history. She chats with Ruth Kopelman, whose son, Arie, is president of Chanel. The two look like grandmothers in sensible shoes, not philanthropic megaforces. Unlike many of the grand dames here, these women show neither plastic surgery nor pretense.

Meanwhile, like the hosts themselves, some of the younger guests compose a new wave of wealth and power on the island. Like Boston, Palm Beach is an elite town that's been forced to redefine “society.” In short, it's meritocracy versus aristocracy. The nouveau riche versus the Old Guard. Dotcoms and technology versus gas, oil, and steel.

“The money has definitely changed in Boston,” explains Beacon Hill arts patron Smoki Bacon, who, with husband Richard Concannon, visited Palm Beach last February during a reception at the Breakers to benefit Boston University's Special Collections. “If you follow the ironclad definition of a Brahmin — from being born in Boston to graduation day at Harvard to a plot at Mt. Auburn Cemetery — there are maybe two left in Boston.”

In Palm Beach, the Old Guard has diminished, too. Chestnut Hill and Palm Beach grand dame Polly Davidson is now in her 70s; her husband, Joseph, has died. Boston Ballet supporters Tatiana and George Gardner (UBS PaineWebber) have graduated from social obligations. Beacon Hill matriarch Mary Ellen Cabot died two years ago, after moving to Palm Beach with her then-husband Louis Cabot.

Nowadays, self-made multimillionaires — slammed by some as flashy but undeniably loaded and energetic — are taking over. Any doubt that a new wave was crashing onto Palm Beach was shattered in 1995, when Donald Trump opened his Mar-a-Lago Club. Unlike clubs of yore, where you could get in only if your father belonged, Mar-a-Lago welcomes anyone willing to pay a $150,000 initiation fee and $7,200 in annual dues.

Some nouveau riche priorities embraced by Palm Beach newcomers have driven many bluebloods out of town. “A lot of the old money migrated up to Jupiter Island,” Mary Ellen Cabot's son, Michael, says between sips of matzo ball soup at Toojay's. The upscale deli is near the former site of Au Bar, Ted Kennedy and William Kennedy Smith's one-time haunt. (The Kennedys are another old-money Boston family with ties to Palm Beach, but cut them after Smith was acquitted in his rape trial.) Michael Cabot, who grew up on Beacon Hill, is a real estate agent who moved to Palm Beach to care for his ailing mother. While his family's Old Guard name is traded every day on the New York Stock Exchange, at 32, he's about 20 years too young for the society brigade, where folks in their 50s — such as Michele and Howard Kessler — are up-and-comers.

Jupiter Island is a 17-mile-long hamlet south of Hobe Sound that has been ranked Florida's wealthiest town by the U.S. Census. It's what Palm Beach used to be. Think Ford, Roosevelt, and Bush. The late Permelia Reed, a mining and oil heiress who created the Jupiter Island Club with her husband, Joseph, had simple rules for the resort: “No drunks, no party-pushers, no rudeness to the employees,” she once said. “Otherwise, you go to Palm Beach.”

Those aren't the only restrictions. The Jupiter Island Club, like Palm Beach's Everglades Club and Bath & Tennis Club, has a history of excluding Jews. Prominent Jews, as a rule, belong to Palm Beach Country Club. (Spokesmen for the clubs had no comment on their membership policies.) This taboo topic makes millionaires squirm as if their Stubbs and Wooten loafers were two sizes too small. For other Palm Beachers, it spurs outrage.

“Those Brahmin people, not all of them but in general, have maintained their anti-Semitism, which is ironic considering that Massachusetts was founded for religious tolerance,” says a Jewish retiree who lives in Palm Beach. “Can you imagine sitting next to someone on the board of a charity when you know you can't get into his club? What the hell is wrong with this town?”

One Palm Beach merchant who isn't Jewish says the segregation shocks him. “I've never seen anything so blatant,” he says. “I thought people here would've been more sophisticated. Friends of mine were suspended from [an area club] for bringing in Jewish friends. The irony is, the Jewish people are more generous to charities. The WASPs and the Yankees are not. Never have been.”

Despite the stereotype of lollygagging uberwealth, Palm Beachers sweat like hamsters in a wheel to maintain the status quo of “giving back.” Competition among the 107 charities that raise money on the island is fierce, but this fact is downplayed because it's just not gracious to use the label “swooping vultures,” as one Beacon Hill transplant does.

Dana-Farber is by far the most visible Boston charity. Ruth Kopelman, along with Abe Gosman, Polly Davidson (once wed to former Boston Ritz-Carlton owner Gerald Blakeley), and Emily DiMaggio (wife of former Red Sox center fielder Dom DiMaggio) launched Dana-Farber in Palm Beach with a party at the Ritz-Carlton here 12 years ago. The Boston research center now has a full-time fundraising office on the island.

Another Harvard affiliate, the Schepens Eye Research Institute, backed by Red Sox radio legend Curt Gowdy and his wife, hosts an educational symposium series. BU Special Collections, which houses the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. and other 20th-century figures, holds a Breakers cocktail party each February, where last year's guests included Frank Sugrue, founder of the Charles Playhouse in Boston.

Given the number of charities, donors are forced to choose as if they were staring down a hefty brunch menu at the Four Seasons. Says a Back Bay resident who vacations on the island: “People choose charities based on their link to the cause unless they're using philanthropy for advancement, which you don't find in Boston. People don't social climb there like they do in other cities.”

Tell this to other Bostonians, and they guffaw, as much as they can without risking decorum. “I've never met anyone, myself included, who wasn't looking up,” says Richard Krock, a retired Boston investor and engineer who lives with his wife, Phyllis, in a Palm Beach getaway where they tend roses and indulge three Cavalier King Charles spaniels. “But how does the saying go? The higher the monkey climbs, the more his ass is exposed.”

Whichever you pick, charity is a prerequisite in this town. In addition to the Schepens Institute, Gowdy and his wife, Jerre, for example, who bought a spread here in 1988 that was previously owned by one of John D. Rockefeller's granddaughters, support the American Heart Association and a local museum of art.

Outside the Gowdys' iron gate is a beware of dogs sign. Inside their mansion, a gray poodle named FeFe yaps ferociously at lizards on the patio. Next door is John Cunningham of Weston, former president of Wang Laboratories, who once dubbed Palm Beach “an adult Nantucket.”

“I've been asked to do a lot of things, but charity work takes time,” says Jerre Gowdy, wedged next to her retired NBC sportscaster husband on a love seat that faces the Intracoastal Waterway. “We participated in so many events in Boston — hospitals, the symphony, the ballet. When we came down here, we weren't ready to just start all over.”

But they did. Adds Curt: “I really like to go fishing.”

Ancestry aside, Palm Beach for some Bostonians is a place to start anew, especially if you've ditched a litigious mistress, a pesky ex-wife, or the tax man. The palm trees sway, the Pouilly Fuissé flows, and most folks don't really give a damn, as long as there's no shortage of, well, anything.

Take Stephen Fagan, for instance, the Framingham man who swiped his two daughters from their mother after their divorce. He renamed himself Dr. William S. Martin, relocated to Palm Beach, remarried rich, and boarded the society bandwagon before his kidnapping arrest in 1998. A plea bargain kept him out of jail.

“I think a lot of people come to Palm Beach to reinvent themselves,” says fashion designer Alfred Fiandaca, who owns two boutiques in Boston, two in New York, and one off Worth Avenue. During the season, he churns out at least three couture ball gowns a week at an average price of $5,000. “The new society in Palm Beach isn't what the old society was,” he says. “In Boston, if your grandparents were somebody, you were somebody. Palm Beach, on the other hand, says if you underwrite this, and you give to that charity, you're somebody.”

“People in Palm Beach want to see each other's stuff,” reveals one Boston society wife. As she sits in her mansion, she clutches a gadget that resembles a doorbell button in case she needs to summon the butler. “The question is, do you have the right stuff?”

And if you do, have you named a building? Like the Eunice and Julian Cohen Pavilion at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, given a decade ago by the Cohens. (Julian, with Stephen Weiner, developed The Mall at Chestnut Hill.) Or, as in the case of Abe Gosman, who moved to Palm Beach in 1989, have you built one of the biggest houses in town? His palace is 65,000 square feet.

For Bostonians who've conquered capitalism, the bottom line isn't as fleeting as cocoa butter and caviar, even in a sunny resort paradise. It's about making your name wield as much weight down here as it does back home.